The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.
Nothing but sand as far as the eye can see. Desert sand – or are they dunes? Dark mountains on the horizon, capped with snow. I’ve trekked out here with Sergey Logvinenko, more than an hour through woods and marshes, branches and brushwood, with pools of water everywhere. At first they resemble sand dunes, with a few pines here and there, but gradually the hills become bigger and more barren. It’s a dramatic sight, all of this sand with snow-topped peaks in the distance. A little further on, we see a small lake with a wall of sand as its backdrop. These sand drifts in the middle of Siberia, on the perpetually frozen soil, created thousands of years ago at the foot of a glacier, are unique. We trudge on through the loose sand, to the bare spots where nothing can grow.
The experience is at once breathtaking and ponderous – I’m sweating profusely and starting to ache all over. I’m a city boy, unlike Sergey, who’s on a survival trip in this wilderness with a group of twenty-five young men and women. He doesn’t falter. Just before this, they had forded the river in a rubber boat that carried their tents, provisions, and baggage – and me. There’s still plenty of ice, even though it’s June. Ice sticks around in the river well into July. Then it returns in September. The group will spend about ten days camping in various locations, but I will be returning this evening to Novaya Chara, in Zabaikalsky Krai. I have a room there, with a real bed, in an average Russian apartment. During my travels, I’m staying in the homes of ordinary people, almost all of whom have a connection with the BAM. Either they or their parents came here in the 1970s to work on the railroad, under extremely difficult conditions. They never left.
Novaya Chara is the “capital” of Kalarsky District, which is almost one and a half times the size of my native Netherlands. It is 6,079 kilometers east of Moscow, and about 4,000 people live here. It is a stop on the Baikal-Amur Mainline, which I am writing a book about. To reach the BAM, I took the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow, got off at Ulan-Ude, and then backtracked a bit to get to Tayshet. The train I took from Moscow was named Tsarskoye Zoloto (“Tsar’s Gold”), a luxury tourist train with Beijing as its final destination. The most elegant cars of this German excursion train are copies of the comfortable carriages in which party leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev traveled around the country in the 1960s and 1970s. A lot of red velvet, copper, and wood paneling. And extravagant restaurant cars. Travelers are truly pampered here, and I was no exception, which was a good thing: the next leg on the BAM would be a different story. Or at least that’s what I thought at the time.
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